After a two week period without events on-the-pitch causing confusion, insult and despair, it is something of an unwelcome return to the reality of Charlton Athletic’s sluggish grind towards an almost inevitable relegation to League One.
Not only the horrible reality that the league table provides, with the Addicks an effective seven points from safety with eight games remaining, but the unavoidable and very real fear created by the quality of opposition to be played before the conclusion of this horrendous season.
A quality so high that this weekend’s game at The Valley against play-off chasing Birmingham City appears one of the kinder fixtures in Charlton’s run in. Kinder in the same way that watching Naby Sarr attempt to play football is a more pleasant experience than witnessing Roger Johnson’s efforts.
For though it would arguably be even more irrational to feel a trip to Ipswich Town and home games against Derby County, Brighton and Hove Albion and Burnley will provide much reward for Jose Riga’s side, it takes little away from the extremely tough test the Blues will provide.
Gary Rowett creating a structured unit, building a strong Michael Morrison-led defensive resolve, and instilling his side with an efficient forward threat. Birmingham, with their comparatively limited resources but almost unmatched cohesion, able to overachieve for the duration of this campaign.
In contrast, of course, to the disjointed, defensively tame and gutless efforts of Charlton throughout the season. Supporters of the Blues have been given a side they can believe in, while The Valley faithful have been left disconnected from their club as a result of Roland Duchatelet’s regime.
A reminder, therefore, of the reality of the need to protest against the club’s ownership. That the other battle the Addicks face, and one that is likely to be met on Saturday with a much more coordinated, effective and determined effort than anything those wearing Charlton colours on the pitch will provide.
LAST MEETING – BIRMINGHAM CITY 0-1 CHARLTON ATHLETIC
Charlton unexpectedly recorded their first away win of the season at St Andrew’s in November thanks to Johnnie Jackson’s 50th goal for the Addicks.
In a tight affair, the hosts created the first genuine opening just after the break when Jacques Maghoma’s cross-cum-shot flashed past a motionless Stephen Henderson and skimmed beyond the post.
But it was the Addicks who took a decisive lead, with Jackson rising highest and powerfully heading home from Tareiq Holmes-Dennis’ cross. His half-century goal well celebrated by those in the away end.
And further celebrations followed as Karel Fraeye’s determined side held out for the remaining 29 minutes. A second successive victory, after being Sheffield Wednesday the previous weekend, but Charlton’s final win for 13 games, and the final win before the interim boss was dismissed.
Regardless of what occurs in their remaining nine games of the season, it is fair to say that Birmingham’s season will remain an excellent one.
Though impressing many in his efforts to lead the Blues away from trouble last season, few expected Rowett to maintain a season-long play-off push with comparatively limited resources. Their overachievement, built primarily on a strong collective effort and a determined defensive line, meaning that a top six finish remains in sight with nine games to play.
But that isn’t to say that falling short wouldn’t be a disappointment, nor that the fact the Blues have started to stutter while those around them find their best form isn’t frustrating.
A hard-though 1-0 win over Hull City at the start of March left them just one point off the top six, but just two points, and one goal, from the following three games has seen that gap extend to six points, softened slightly by virtue of the Blues having played a game less than their competitors.
Those competitors, such as Sheffield Wednesday, have fared somewhat better. The Owls emphatically dismantling the Addicks at Hillsborough prior to the international break.
Slip-ups in their run-in, particularly against the likes of Charlton, can’t be afforded if they are to finish in the top six.
It is telling of the extent of the horrendous position the Addicks find themselves in that gaining seven points from three games has been made relatively meaningless by the defeat that followed.
The 3-0 loss at Hillsborough quickly killing off the faint sense of hope that had, in particular, been created by the victory over Middlesbrough.
For not only did it leave Charlton with an unrealistic margin to make up in order to maintain their Championship status, but the performance against Wednesday was a complete shambles. More fitting of their efforts throughout the campaign, rather than the determined and spirited display against Boro.
Concerning, too, to see Riga’s decision making again appear questionable. Having been held accountable for the failure to beat MK Dons and in a must win game, starting Reza Ghoochannejhad and leaving Ademola Lookman on the bench did the head coach, or Charlton, few favours.
Birmingham’s hopes of handing a debut to Kyle Lafferty appear to have been derailed after the Northern Ireland international suffered a groin injury while away with his country.
Lafferty, signed on loan from Norwich City during the international break, has failed to make an impression at Carrow Road, but was talismanic in his country’s successful Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, scoring on seven occasions, and there was hope he would address Birmingham’s recent troubles in front of goal.
But Diego Fabbrini, who failed a late fitness test ahead of the game against Fulham prior to the international break, is likely to be available.
There may also be a start for experienced centre-back Paul Robinson, who was rested by Rowett for the games against Wolves and Fulham prior to the international break. The Blues boss hopeful that giving the 37-year-old some time off will prolong his career, and allow him to handle the demands of back-to-back fixtures.
Charlton should welcome back Jordan Cousins after the midfielder missed the defeat at Hillsborough prior to the international break through a slight injury.
Cousins, who is likely to come in for El-Hadji Ba, could also be joined in midfield by Jackson, with the skipper making a return from the bench against Wednesday. Alou Diarra may drop into the backline, replacing the unconvincing Rod Fanni, in order to accommodate the skipper.
But it remains to be seen whether Stephen Henderson or Chris Solly will return from their own respective injuries, given the lack of information that has been given on the pair since they last played against Reading and Preston respectively. Henderson’s injury seemingly changing every week, and next to nothing mentioned about the vice-skipper.
The pair will, however, surely come into the side if fit, and further changes to the XI that lost at Hillsborough are not unlikely.
Particularly in attack, with Lookman and Simon Makienok in line to replace Ghoochannejhad as Yaya Sanogo serves the final games of his three-match ban.
KEY BATTLE – THE FIRST GOAL
Putting Birmingham City’s game on your both teams to score accumulator this season will have rarely proved fruitful.
On just 12 occasions have both teams found the back of the net in games involving the Blues, with Rowett’s men recoding ten wins to nil. A consequence of that resilient, Morrison-led backline, which is unwilling to give away a lead once gained.
Rowett’s side don’t deploy negative tactics or anti-football as stats like those might suggest, they are merely determined and intelligent. Everything the Addicks are not.
However, the Blues have struggled for goals at times this season, and appear particularly fragile in front of goal having fallen behind. On nine occasions this campaign have they suffered defeat without scoring.
It therefore appears that the first goal in the game will be crucial, not least given the impact it is likely to have on a Charlton side that can perform when possessing some confidence, but completely capitulate otherwise.
Finally working out how to defend set-pieces with some success, and not providing an easy opportunity from which the visitors can gain a lead to hold, is as vital as ever.
The beginning of a gruelling final period of a gruelling season. Charlton Athletic 0-2 Birmingham City